This is part of a series
Jan 27, 2017
Abolitionism: The Schism Over Voting
Smith discusses the split in the American Anti-Slavery Society over voting, equal rights for women, and other causes.
As I explained in a previous essay, abolitionists were those antislavery activists who called for the immediate emancipation of slaves. Abolitionists were severe critics of gradualism, according to which emancipation should occur in stages, over time, to avoid the social problems that would supposedly occur if millions of slaves were liberated in one stroke. As the poet and abolitionist John Greenleaf Whittier put it in 1833:
The term immediate is used in contrast with that of gradual. Earnestly as I wish it, I do not expect, no one expects, that the tremendous system of oppression can be instantaneously overthrown. The terrible and unrebukable indignation of a free people has not yet been sufficiently concentrated against it.
There was a secondary meaning of “immediate” that was sometimes defended by abolitionists, especially those steeped in some version of evangelical Christianity. This meaning stressed the moral conversion of people to the abolitionist cause. Although many gradualists focused on utilitarian considerations (such as the economic consequences of slavery versus free labor) in their condemnation of slavery, abolitionists focused instead on its moral evil. Slavery, they argued, is a grievous sin, so every Christian—indeed, every person of conscience—should repudiate slavery root and branch. People of conscience should do their best to eradicate this monstrous injustice and refuse to participate in its continuance. Thus, for the abolitionists, slavery was an intensely personal matter, a matter of conscience. Abolitionism, in the scheme of William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, Frederick Douglass and their allies, should use “moral suasion” to bring about the conversion of Americans to the cause of immediate emancipation. Such conversion did not depend on a cumbersome political machinery and so could be accomplished immediately, i.e., without any intermediate agency.
We must appreciate this stress on the conscience of every individual if we are to understand the Garrisonian rejection of voting and other political methods to abolish slavery. In May, 1844, the American Anti-Slavery Society passed the following resolution:
Resolved: The secession from the United States government is the duty of every abolitionist; since no one can take office, or throw a vote for another to hold office, under the United States Constitution, without violating his anti-slavery principles, and rendering himself an abettor of the slaveholder in his sin.
In 1845 Wendell Phillips defended this resolution in Can Abolitionists Vote or Take Office under the United States Constitution? His principal targets were members of the Liberty Party, which had been formed in 1840 to promote abolitionism by political means. This disagreement within abolitionist ranks went back years and was precipitated in part by the dramatic increase in voter turnout (white males) since the election of Andrew Jackson in 1828. (Voter participation increased from approximately 25 percent in in the early 1820s to over 50 percent in 1828 and to 78 percent in 1840.) The Jacksonian era signaled the beginning of grass-roots politics in America, with barnstorming campaigns that included cheap pamphlets and newspapers, sensational gossip about political opponents, hokey songs and slogans, promises of political patronage for supporters, insistence that voters back “the ticket, the whole ticket, and nothing but the ticket,” and open conventions. Just as the Whig Party, formed in the early 1830s in opposition to Jackson (“a dangerous man on horseback”), had borrowed the same tactics from the Jacksonians, so political abolitionists hoped to rally support for abolitionism by similar methods.
William Lloyd Garrison disliked all this electioneering hullabaloo, believing that it catered to vulgar prejudices and crude self-interest with virtually no regard for principles. Political campaigns per se would do nothing to promote the cause of freeing the slaves, since widespread racism in America would prevent the election of principled abolitionists, even in the northern states. (Garrison observed that racism was probably more rampant in the North than it was in the South, and that much of this racism was promoted by establishment churches. But more on this in a future essay.) The best path for abolitionists, therefore, was to steer clear of politics and to appeal directly to the conscience of every individual. This was the only course of action that promised success for the small and despised minority of abolitionists.
We should not misunderstand Garrison on this point. He knew that slavery, which was embedded in the Constitution, could only be abolished through political action. “But this political reformation is to be effected solely by a change in the moral vision of the people.” Garrison continued:
By converting electors to the doctrine that slavery ought to be immediately abolished, a rectified political action is the natural consequence; for where this doctrine is received into the soul, the soul-carrier may be trusted anywhere, that he will not betray the cause of bleeding humanity….It has never been a difficult matter to induce men to go to the ballot-box; but the grand difficulty ever has been, and still, is, to persuade them to carry a good conscience thither, and act as free moral agents, not as the tools of party.
The most dramatic confrontation between the political and nonpolitical wings of the abolitionist movement occurred at the 1840 convention of the American Anti-Slavery Society (AASS). The convention opened with nominations for a business committee, and among the nominees was a woman, Abby Kelley. This provoked a rancorous response, with conservatives objecting that a woman had no business serving in that role. It defied Scripture and ran contrary to the norms of civilized society to form a “promiscuous” committee. As one radical explained to his sister, “Our friend Abby…was the bombshell that exploded the society.” Nevertheless, the convention approved Kelley’s nomination by a vote of 571 in favor and 451 against.
Another nominee, the prominent political abolitionist Lewis Tappan, refused to sit on a committee that included a woman, and he claimed that the furor over Abby Kelley (and the woman question generally) was only the surface of a more fundamental problem with Garrison and his followers. Garrison had injected extraneous causes—such as equal rights for women, pacifism, disunionism (secession by the free states), repudiation of political action, and the condemnation of most American churches (“a den of thieves,” as one radical characterized them for their support of “manstealing”)—into the abolitionist movement. Tappan insisted that this tactic would alienate many potential supporters. Tappan wanted Garrisonians banned from the AASS, and he insisted that abolitionists should strive for emancipation by conventional political methods.
Garrison, in contrast, maintained that the AASS should be open to every abolitionist, whatever his or her views might be on other matters. Abolitionists should debate issues like female equality within their own ranks; members should follow their own conscience and decide for themselves which position to accept. The fact that the AASS might adopt a plank did not mean that those who voted against the plank were obligated to embrace or espouse it. A plank or platform merely indicated the opinion of a majority of members. This did not mean that dissenters should toe the party line. They should feel free to express their own views. There is no such thing as a collective conscience.
Shortly after the election of Abby Kelly, hundreds of anti-Garrisonians walked out of the AASS convention, convened in the basement of the same building, and, led by Lewis Tappan, formed their own group—the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society. This organization promoted voting for antislavery candidates and would work closely with the abolitionist Liberty Party, which was formed later the same year. As Garrison predicted, the Liberty Party had no significant political influence. Some members later joined the Free Soil Party upon its formation in 1848, which was more successful because it repudiated abolitionism and called mainly for banning the extension of slavery into the territories. This policy attracted moderate antislavery advocates from both the Democratic and Whig parties, including Abraham Lincoln and other gradualists. But the racist argument of some Free-Soilers, to the effect that banning slavery in the territories was a good policy because it was the best way to keep blacks out of those areas, disgusted abolitionists. Garrison called it the “white manism” party.
With this background, we now turn to the arguments of Wendell Phillips (a close friend and colleague of Garrison for many years) against voting and political office-holding by abolitionists. In a lecture delivered in 1853, Phillips expressed his deep distrust of politics and politicians in general. His remarks are squarely in the libertarian tradition.
Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty; power is ever stealing from the many to the few. The manna of popular liberty must be gathered each day, or it is rotten….The hand entrusted with power becomes, whether from human depravity or esprit de corps, the necessary enemy of the people. Only by continual oversight can the democrat in office be prevented from hardening into a despot: only by unintermitted agitation can a people be kept sufficiently awake to the principle not to let liberty be smothered in material prosperity….Never look, therefore, for an age when the people can be quiet and safe. At such times despotism, like a shrouding mist, steals over the mirror of Freedom.
Phillips opened Can Abolitionists Vote or Take Office under the United States Constitution? by considering two major objections that had been made in response to the resolution passed by the AASS in 1844 (quoted above). This resolution called for disunion and claimed that abolitionists should not seek political office or vote for those who do. As a result, critics maintained that the AASS was “a no-government body” and that in passing the resolution, the AASS was endorsing total pacifism. Neither of these charges had merit, according to Phillips. From a belief that the Federal Government, as is presently exists, is bad, it does not follow that all governments are bad. The AASS “is not opposed to government, but only to this Government based upon and acting for slavery.” The AASS “has tried the Constitution, and pronounced it unsound.”
To the charge that the AASS resolution implicitly endorsed nonresistance (pacifism) because it called for nonparticipation by abolitionists in the American political system, Phillips pointed out that this was a complete non sequitur. Many non-pacifists throughout history had called for renouncing allegiance to their own unjust governments, and they have protested by refusing to participate in the political options available to them.
Although the two positions considered here—anarchism and nonresistance—were accepted by Garrison, Phillips (like Garrison himself) wanted to separate them from abolitionism generally and from the platform of the AASS specifically. Phillips was neither an anarchist nor a pacifist, so he wanted to make clear that his opposition to voting and political action had no inherent connection to Garrison’s personal views.
We shall consider the details of Can Abolitionists Vote or Take Office under the United States Constitution? in my next essay.